Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life

Yale University Press  2013


Professor Lang has developed an unusual plan to explore the life of an unusual writer. Modeling the approach in part on one of Levi’s books, Lang begins with a chapter called “The End” and concludes with one called “The Beginning” followed, naturally, by “Preface.” This somewhat playful strategy enacts Lang’s concern with possible confu­sions of chronology and causality. It allows him, as well, to guide us with proper tentative­ness through such issues as whether or not Levi would have become an author without the experience of surviving the Holocaust.

The inside chapters, the meat of the meal, consider “The War,” “Writing,” “The Jewish Question,” and “Thinking.” Lang provides the necessary wartime context for understanding the exceptional situation of Italy and of Italian Jews before, during, and after World War II. He also examines the transition in Levi’s professional identity from chemist (chemi­cal engineer and chemical plant manager) to writer. In this discussion, he underscores Levi’s insistence that the scientific and artistic modes are not adversarial. Lang sees Levi as feeling his way into a balancing act. While the precision and clarity necessary in scientific work find their way effectively into Levi’s prose style, perhaps his poetry is handicapped by literalism.

For Levi, not just his biographer, the question of Jewish identity is problematic. Certainly Primo Levi can be identified as a Jewish writer: the issue is whether this identification is confining or liberating. Levi’s political leanings were universalist rather than nationalist. This other balancing act, between particularity and universality, Lang also exam­ines with zest and subtlety. This is especially true in “Thinking,” the chapter in which Lang attempts to locate Levi within (or just outside of) the role of moral philosopher.

In calling attention to and assessing the variety of genres that Levi explored, Levi’s original cast of mind, the many contradic­tions in Levi’s own assertions or recollections about important issues, and other intriguing matters, Berel Lang has given us a fresh vision of a fascinating and rather mysterious figure. Fortunately, he has not abolished the mystery, but rather fully respected it. Chronology, index, list of Levi’s books, notes.

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